Thursday, July 5, 2012

(c) 2012

I'm writing a book based, in part, on my Master's thesis. Since it's going to be a commercial book, and since there's a chance the subject is actually fascinating, I can't talk about too many details.

Let's use generic phrases so I can talk to you about one part of the research for this book. A long time ago, a Rocket Ship Company hired a Famous Director to make a movie about rocket ships. The Rocket Ship Company donated the movie to a Not Very Famous Museum.

Next, the Rocket Ship Company submitted a copyright notice to the US Copyright Office. Meanwhile, the Rocket Ship Company didn't notice that the Famous Director had put a copyright notice ("copyright (c)Famous Director") under the title of the movie - - right *in* the movie! 

Later on (but still back in the 1970s) the Not Very Famous Museum decided to toss the movie (and all materials related to the movie) into a dumpster. The only existing, complete copy of the film resided at the Library of Congress vault in Culpepper, Virginia.

Decades fly by, and now it's 2012, and I want to get a digital copy of this Library of Congress copy of the movie to finish writing my book. In order to get a copy of this movie (by a Famous Director), I'll have to pay several hundred dollars for a transfer to HD video. But FIRST... I have to determine: who holds the copyright?

Turns out there are agencies in and around the Copyright Office who handle this kind of stuff. So I hired a copyright private eye to figure it all out.

Here are the possible scenarios:

1) The film has no parents - so it's an orphaned film in the public domain (best thing evarrr!)

2) The Rocket Ship Company holds the copyright - could be okay, because I know some people who run the Rocket Ship Company's museum and maybe they'll sign a quitclaim for me. Hooray!

3) The estate of the Famous Director (in this case, a University library) - could be HUGE trouble, because the folks who work at the University archive think everything the Famous Director made must be worth MILLIONS, I tell ya! MILLIONS! (possible worst-case scenario).

4) Not Very Famous Museum holds the copyright - unlikely (they never filed with the Copyright Office) but if they get ownership, it's going to be a big problem because nobody, and I mean NOBODY there understands the slightest thing about quitclaims or intellectual property or making decisions about stuff they didn't know they had. I think I worry about this one more than Option 3.

So, hopefully I'll have a handle on this by Friday. If not, it'll be a very long weekend.


  1. I'm guessing it'll be No. 2. Famous Director did it as work for hire, and studios hold copyrights on films much more commonly than individuals (except for the most indie auteurs), especially since they paid for them. I think No. 3 is a non-starter and No. 4 is unlikely unless the Rocket Co. explicity signed over its copyright. I'd call No. 1 unlikely but possible, depending on the film's age and how Rocket Co.'s ownership history shakes out (sometimes IP gets left behind as title changes hands). So I'm putting my money on No. 2.

    I had to deal with a few of these issues in "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow" using material originally copyrighted by General Motors (for the World's Fair Map) and Chesley Bonestell. GM was accommodating but bureaucratic; didn't seem to understand what I was asking for at first and had to be convinced the art was originally theirs, but ultimately let me use it for a few hundred bucks. In comparison, the Bonestell estate was a breeze: Very personal interaction with someone excited about the book's concept and asking nothing but acknowledgement and a free copy in return. Lovely.

    I face similar issues with "Mystery Project X," and may ask for a referral to your Copyright PI someday. I'm 97% sure I understand the situation but would hate to get sued for that 3%. I am a fierce defender of creators' rights, but sometimes this stuff is just harder than it has to be. Good luck!

  2. Forgot to mention: Disney were jerks. But you could've guessed that.

  3. The story becomes trickier: my Copyright PI guy has discovered that the copyright notice is "questionable," so that, although the Famous Rocket Company filed a copyright application, the application doesn't seem to be quite valid. So, I've sort of stepped on a claymore mine here - - the LoC didn't know there was a copyright problem until I paid someone to look into the property's history. So *NOW* it's a bigger problem for the LoC, because I have to get permission from more than one possible copyright holder. It also means the Famous Rocket Company can't just ask for another print, because the film's not quite "theirs" now, thanks to me. :\

    More details on my follow-up blog post, dated 11 July 2012.

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